Harvest of Night Seeds
by Rose Blackthorn
Crickets chirped beyond the garden, their repetitive symphony so common that Tracy barely noticed it anymore. The night air was cool, and stars sparkled in a clear sky like glitter thrown haphazardly across dark water. Behind her, the house sat plain and unassuming, an occasional creak coming from settling beams and supports. A dim light glowed through the kitchen window, and bluish-white flashes from a TV showed in the upstairs bedroom window where her parents slept. She was supposed to be in bed, too; dawn came early and she had to help with the milking. But this was her favorite time of day—after the sun had set, and she was alone on the back porch. The animals were quiet, lost in their own dreaming, and on this late spring evening she could almost hear her seedlings growing.
A few yards from where she sat, tucked between the old weathered barn and the clothes lines, was her little vegetable garden. Her daddy grew corn for profit, and her momma made goat’s-milk soap to sell at a little boutique in town. Tracy had started the vegetable patch on her own, between school and helping with the chores around the farm. She was the one who had tilled the ground with an old gas-engine tiller older than she was. She had bought the seeds out of her allowance that she’d saved since last year. She was the one who made sure the rows of seedlings got watered, and checked daily for any offending weeds that had taken root where they weren’t welcome. Daddy had no time for it, and Momma no inclination. In fact, when she’d told them that she wanted to grow her own garden, they had exchanged a knowing look and Daddy grunted while Momma rolled her eyes.
“If you want to waste half your summer taking care of a garden, that’s your choice,” Momma had said. “Just keep in mind it’s your project. I’m not pulling weeds, or getting after you to water it. Is that clear?”
“Yes ma’am,” Tracy had said, glancing at her father.
Daddy just grunted again, and went back to thumbing through the farm equipment catalogue that rested on his lap.
So Tracy spent all her free time in that little patch of dirt. She had found a website that sold all kinds of seeds, things she’d never eaten before, and some things she’d never even heard of. She had sent in her order, and got back a box filled with seeds for cowpeas, eggplant, finocchio, minutina, and scorzonea. There was chicory, banana cantaloupe, strawberry spinach, purple carrots, glass gem corn, tepary beans, marbled amaranth, and several different kinds of exotic squash. But the seeds she was most curious about had come as a ‘special gift’ tucked in amongst the others. The packet of black crescent shaped seeds had simply been labeled “oíche seeds”. There was no other description, and she didn’t know if they were vegetables, fruits or herbs. She’d gone back to the website to look them up, but they weren’t in the list of available seeds.
Finally, she decided just to plant them, and see what grew. The seeds, like tiny glass sickles, clicked against each other in her damp palm as she carefully placed one in each prepared divot. She covered them with dirt, and watered them by hand. Last, she pushed a pointed stake into the ground beside them, the envelope with their name stapled to the top.
Over the next few days her seeds began to sprout. Some were thin and fine, like pale green whiskers. Some immediately put out bright green leaves that spread wide and strained upward toward the sun. But the oíche seeds didn’t do anything. Tracy frowned, but figured maybe they were defective and wouldn’t grow at all.
She made sure to water and weed the little garden patch, ignoring the way her mother shook her head and rolled her eyes. It didn’t matter that everything Tracy had planted was edible, and that they would have fresh vegetables in the summer. All Momma cared about was that Tracy got up to milk the cow and two nanny goats they kept in the barn. She fed them and the chickens every day, and checked for eggs in the afternoon. Daddy spent from morning till night out in the corn fields with their two hired hands Billy and Russ, or in town bullshitting with the other farmers in the area. Momma went into town to have her hair and nails done, and to gossip with the other farm wives. She also made and sold her little oval bars of goat’s-milk soap with the dried lavender or marigold petals infused in them. The only person who gave Tracy any encouragement at all was Billy. He would stand outside the fence and watch as she bent to pull the little pervasive weeds, or reformed the small earthen dams around the plants.
“Lookin’ real good, Tracy,” he would say with a crooked smile, a piece of straw hanging off his bottom lip. “Can’t wait to taste some of what you got growin’ there.”
Tracy would just nod and go on about her work. Billy was twenty years old, and had worked for her daddy for two years. But he’d only started showing interest in her for the last few months, since her fourteenth birthday. He might be okay according to Daddy, but he gave her the creeps.
Almost a month after planting Tracy saw the slender shoots coming up from the oíche seeds, and she grinned from ear to ear. She had kept watering them, but hadn’t expected anything would come of it. Now there were dark green stems pushing up through the earth, straight and sharp as hat pins. She had bought some plant food from the nursery in town, and sprayed a little on the newcomers to celebrate their late arrival.
The other plants were already well established, stretching up and out to greedily receive the light from the early summer sun. Back in the corner, the oíche seedlings seemed set apart from the rest of the garden. They had shade from the barn in the morning and from the trees along the fence in the afternoon. The lack of full sun didn’t seem to bother them, although they just kept getting taller without putting out any leaves. In another week they were almost a foot high, still thin and shiny like long pins, and colored a deep green that was almost black.
Billy came by before dinner, and helped Tracy feed the chickens and check for fresh eggs. He was sweaty from working in the fields all day, but unapologetic when he brushed against her while she cast dried corn for the birds.
She was a quiet girl, but not shy. “You stink,” she said and moved away from him. But Billy just laughed, that devil-may-care glint in his blue eyes that he thought made him look sexy.
“Well you smell good,” he said, and put the last of the eggs in a basket. “Got anything good to taste yet, out of that garden of yours?”
“Not yet,” she said and picked up the basket, leaving him behind with the chickens pecking at his feet.
When she tried to tell her parents about it, and how uncomfortable Billy made her feel, Daddy grunted and Momma let out an exasperated sigh.
“Billy’s a good worker,” Daddy said, taking a pull from his beer bottle. “He’s a good boy. Been here more’n two years, and never caused a problem. You best not be making trouble for him.”
“You’re still a little girl, Tracy,” Momma said when Daddy stopped. “He looks at you like a little sister, and has told me so before. Don’t fault him for offering to help you with your chores, when he’s got plenty of his own work to do.”
So Tracy said nothing more about it.
Another week went by, and the temperature stayed high. The glass gem corn was up to her shoulders, the beans and cowpeas reached to her knees. The squash was sending runners through the rows, and many of the plants were flowering. The oíche stems were as tall as her hips, off in their own little corner of the garden. They stood perfectly straight and as slim as knitting needles. But when she went back there to check for weeds and to be sure they were well watered, she felt as though they leaned toward her. They appeared to be hard and glossy, but when she gently stroked her fingers along their smooth lengths they felt silky against her skin. She still didn’t know what they were, really; but she felt as though they liked her.
Crickets chirped in chorus, and the moon hung low in the sky, a narrow crescent that reminded Tracy of her little black oíche seeds. Stars glittered, and a warm breeze made the trees sigh; soft green corn leaves whispered riddles to each other. In the garden there were little crackling sounds, reminiscent of flames eating through a log in a bonfire. Tracy sat on the back porch, leaning against the railing with a half empty glass of iced tea beside her. The remaining chips of ice clinked softly against the glass as they melted.
Footsteps on the gravel path beside the house caught Tracy’s attention. Her parents were in bed already, their window flickering with its nightly show of TV backlight. She licked her lips and crept back into the shadows of the porch. The post on the left side by the steps was wide enough to hide her.
A tall figure came around the corner, moving stealthily but not silently. Even in the dim moonlight she recognized Billy. He wasn’t watching where he was walking. Instead, his head was tipped back, face shadowed by the bill of his baseball cap, and he was looking up at the second story windows. When he got to her bedroom window, dark at this hour not because she was sleeping but because she hadn’t yet gone to bed, he stopped and stared.
Tracy took slow shallow breaths, making sure not to draw his attention. He was less than six feet from her hiding place.
He stood for what seemed like a long time, gazing up at her empty window. Then two pieces of ice in her glass separated with a loud clink, and his head jerked toward the steps. “Who is that?” he asked, staring directly at where she hid in the shadows. “Tracy, is that you?”
There was nothing for it. Tracy stood and came out of the deep darkness, leaning over to pick up her glass. “You lookin’ for Daddy? ‘Cause he’s already in bed.”
He shook his head, teeth showing in his sudden grin. “No ma’am; I just found what I was lookin’ for.”
“It’s late, and I got chores in the morning,” she said, hoping her voice didn’t sound as breathless to him as it did in her own ears. As she started toward the back door, he came up the steps onto the porch and blocked her path.
“Don’t be in such a hurry, sweetheart,” he said, pouring on all his charm. “I’ve been thinkin’ about you a lot lately. I was hoping you were still up, so we could spend some time.”
Her heart was pounding, so loud she was afraid he would hear it. From the barn came the sound of one of the nanny goats bleating, and the old chimes hanging at the edge of the porch tinkled in the warm breeze. “Not tonight, Billy. I’m tired,” she said, trying to sound normal.
He moved closer, still smiling at her with all his teeth showing. “It won’t take long, sweetheart,” he said and took off his hat. “You do smell good,” he added, dropping the hat on the porch as he reached out to smooth her hair.
Pretense done, she turned and hurried down the steps, nearly tripping on the last one. She dropped her iced tea on the grass, hoping the glass wouldn’t break, and ran across the back lawn. The grass was wet and chilly under her bare feet.
“Tracy!” Billy didn’t raise his voice, obviously not wanting to wake the house, and then he laughed. “Don’t you hurt yourself girl, running around in the dark.”
She glanced back, and saw him following. She thought for one second of screaming, but knew already that he’d play it off as an innocent misunderstanding. Her parents liked him, and it was clear they didn’t want to hear anything bad about him, regardless of if it was true.
She had several choices, but some were bad simply because she wasn’t wearing any shoes. For instance, she wouldn’t be smart to circle the house and run down the driveway to the road. The drive was covered in gravel which would just hurt her feet and slow her down. She wouldn’t do herself any favors by skinning through the fence into the corn fields either. She had no light, and could easily twist or break an ankle running through the rows. She considered going into the barn, and maybe climbing up into the hay loft—and immediately decided that would be a bad idea. If he cornered her in there, he might think it was some kind of backhanded invitation for his advances.
All this went through her mind in a couple of seconds. No, her best choice was to lead him away from the house, double back and get inside where she could lock the door. She headed straight for the back fence where a line of elms and maples cast shade over the yard in the afternoons. As soon as she was in the denser darkness beneath their limbs, she slowed and dropped to a crouch.
Another glance back showed Billy following her across the back lawn. He was still smiling, as though this was all a game.
From the little garden she’d worked in diligently all spring and early summer came that odd crackling sound again, reminding her of hungry flames eating through dry wood. Her row of glass gem corn swayed slightly, their still-soft leaves whispering secrets. But the crickets had fallen silent.
“Is it hide’n seek then?” Billy called softly, walking cautiously into the shadows of the trees.
Tracy kept low, not wanting him to see her silhouette between the trees, and cautiously duck-walked toward the clothes lines. The strange popping, crackling sound from the garden continued, and she kept expecting to see sparks glimmering between the maturing plants. Instead, light glowed from behind her.
Billy held the disposable lighter that he’d dug out of his pocket and spun the striker wheel with his thumb. Sparks jumped, glittering, from the flint but didn’t catch into a flame. “Damn thing,” he muttered, and tried again.
“Shit,” Tracy breathed. There was no way to avoid him if he could see her. He was faster and stronger than she, and knew his way around the farm as well as she did. She scrambled on all fours, heading for her garden.
The crackling ahead of her got louder, and then stopped all at once. There were still no crickets singing, no frogs croaking or bats squeaking. But in the sudden silence, the cow Daisy mooed and kicked inside the barn, hooves hitting the side of her stall with a muffled thud. The goats both started bleating, the brass bells hanging at their necks ringing through the still night air.
“C’mon, Tracy,” Billy called, still keeping his voice low, “I don’t want to waste all night playin’ games.”
Gooseflesh rippled up her bare arms, and Tracy stopped where she was, putting her hands over her mouth. Something raced past her on both sides, something dark that she couldn’t see, and she jumped, wide eyes straining to make them out.
“I just want us to be close, is all,” Billy said, and spun the striker wheel again. This time, the spark caught the butane and a trembling flame appeared. “Where are you, sweetheart?”
Something flickered in the darkness, too quick for either of them to see, and then Billy grunted.
“Ow,” he said, then “Ow!” He turned, swinging the lighter before him as he tried to see what was happening. Slender yard-high things surrounded him, jumping forward to bite him. “What the hell?!” he exclaimed, dancing clumsily as he tried to avoid whatever was attacking him. “Tracy!”
She was frozen, hands still on her mouth. In the barn, Daisy and the nannies were raising a ruckus, and now the chickens were adding to the noise, squawking and flapping inside their coop. In one fairly clear glimpse as Billy swung around with his lighter, she realized what it was. It made no sense—couldn’t really be true!—but what else could it be?
Billy stumbled back toward the house, dropping the lighter as he swatted at his legs. “Damn, damn,” he said, still ignorant of what was happening. Long needle-thin things leapt at him, stabbing and slicing, drawing blood with each touch. “Tracy, help me!” he called again.
Tracy got to her feet and slowly walked toward the house, panting for breath and eyes wide as she watched disbelieving.
Billy turned, caught a glimpse of her now away from the trees. “Tracy, help!” he called, then tripped and fell backward. The slender creatures were on him at once, cutting and slicing, and blood flowed black in the dim moonlight.
Tracy skirted around the carnage, wondering if they would come for her when they were done with Billy. Before she reached the porch, they left him and moved toward her. The oíche stems, having pulled themselves out of the ground, had split off narrow appendages in three pairs. They were quick and agile, and held the top set of limbs like the forelegs of a praying mantis. Tiny beads had appeared at the top of each stem, apparently their eyes for they could obviously see very well.
“What do you want?” she asked, glancing from Billy’s still form to her strange seedlings.
They seemed to look at each other, communicating in some way she couldn’t fathom. Then one by one they approached her. Carefully and oh so gently, they stroked themselves against her. As she had done in the garden, she grazed her fingertips along their silky stems, feeling an odd sense of affection from them. Then, with no further attempt to communicate, they slipped past her again, scampering back to where Billy lay still on the lawn. Tracy felt that she had to watch, as though she owed it to them. In short order they had reduced the field-hand to little more than a wet spot on the grass. When they were done, they crossed the lawn and disappeared back into the garden.
Tracy bent to retrieve her glass, luckily still in one piece, and went up the steps onto the porch. In the barn Daisy and the goats had fallen quiet once more, and the chickens had gone back to roost. In her parents’ second floor window, the TV continued to flicker. From the fields beyond the yard crickets began to chirp again, and the warm summer breeze soughed through the trees.
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